One of the reasons I love reading historical fiction is that it gives me an opportunity to learn about historical people and events that I might otherwise have gone through life knowing little or nothing about. I would probably never have thought of picking up a non-fiction book on Robert the Bruce, so I’m pleased to have been introduced to him in fictional form in this trilogy of novels by Robyn Young.
The first book, Insurrection, which I read in 2014 and loved, took us through Robert’s early years, explaining the origins of his claim to the Scottish throne, his family’s rivalries with the other contenders, the Balliols and the Comyns, and how he entered the service of Edward I of England after John Balliol was made King of Scotland. I immediately bought a copy of the second book, Renegade, so that I could find out how Robert’s story would continue, but I struggled to get into it and put the book aside until a few weeks ago, when I felt ready to have another attempt.
Renegade begins in the year 1300 with Robert Bruce in exile in Ireland, having betrayed the English and set his sights on taking the throne of Scotland. He intends to search for the Staff of St Malachy, one of four legendary relics, and use it to bargain with King Edward, but things don’t go according to plan and Robert is forced to take a different approach. Swearing loyalty to Edward again, Robert must convince the English that he has turned his back on Scotland once and for all…while secretly biding his time and waiting for a chance to launch his campaign for the Scottish crown.
I think my initial problem with this book was due to the fact that it opens with the search for the Staff of St Malachy and I tend to find ‘hunting for hidden relics’ stories quite tedious and over-used in historical fiction. However, once I got past the first few chapters this storyline was pushed into the background and I started to find the book much more enjoyable (although I still think Insurrection was the better of the two).
Robert himself is still not a character I particularly care for, which is maybe not surprising as his path to the throne is built around treachery and betrayal, but I did have sympathy for the position he found himself in and the difficult choices he had to make. I felt sorry for his friend, Humphrey de Bohun – one of the few characters in the trilogy that I do like – when it became obvious that he too was going to be deceived by Robert for a second time. As in the previous novel, the women in Robert’s life have only small roles to play, but I enjoyed the brief glimpses we are given of his wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, and daughter, Marjorie, and I was sorry that Robert seems to have so little time for them both. Isabel Comyn, Countess of Buchan, is another intriguing female character and I’m hoping we’ll find out what happens to her in the final novel – although I suspect it won’t be good.
Also in this book we learn the fate of William Wallace, who has been lying low since the Battle of Falkirk, trying to avoid being captured. Meanwhile, in England, the ageing King Edward is looking to his son – Edward, Prince of Wales – to carry on his work once he is gone, but the prince seems more interested in his friendship with Piers Gaveston and it is already obvious that he is not going to be the ruler or the military leader his father is. The period in which Renegade is set is a time of conflict and conquest, which means Robyn Young devotes a lot of pages to battles, sieges and ambushes. I’m not really a lover of battle scenes but these were easy enough to follow and understand, as well as being detailed and, as far as I could tell, quite accurate. I was interested to find that the trebuchet Warwolf which Edward is having built during the novel really existed and was used in the Siege of Stirling Castle just as Young describes in the book.
I’m now looking forward to reading the final part of the trilogy, Kingdom, and would like to do so as soon as possible, because Robyn Young has a new novel set in Renaissance Europe coming out later this year.